Taking it to the Streets! Your Guide to Street Food in South East Asia

Taking it to the Streets! Your Guide to Street Food in South East Asia

21 October 2011

Backpacking Life, Food

Long-term backpacker, Charla Allyn Hughes discusses her love of street stalls in South East Asia and gives newbie backpackers five important tips on how to become a street food connoisseur!

Get your taste buds tingling…

I’m always hungry when I’m in Bangkok. Perhaps it’s the tempting smells or the sight of the ubiquitous street carts… but this city has a way of keeping me constantly on the prowl for my next dish, even if I have just stuffed my face! I rarely look indoors though, because everybody knows that the best food in Thailand cannot be found in a restaurant.

Bangkok is famous for it’s street food, but the sad fact is that many backpackers are either too scared to try it or have no idea what to order or where to start! It’s true with the abundance of stalls selling a huge variety of dishes ranging from curries, soups, noodles and rice dishes to fruit, dried squid, meatballs, kebabs and deep fried snacks – the experience can be overwhelming to say the least. “What will I order? How will I know what I’m eating?” I’ve heard people say.

Be more adventurous!

On an overnight bus last week we stopped at a canteen around 1am and I ordered myself a delicious chicken noodle soup from the street vendor a 30 second walk away from the bus stop. It was the perfect late night snack. I watched in horror as three buses of backpackers pulled up and each of them in turn went to the shop, bought snacks – crisps, cakes and soggy sandwiches and then complained about the food later! I can only urge travellers to be more adventurous when it comes to street food and once you overcome your initial nerves and indulge your taste buds, I guarantee you will never go back!

Delicious and Nutritious! "Gwayteow Gai" or Chicken Noodle SoupDelicious and Nutritious! “Gwayteow Gai” or Chicken Noodle Soup costs about 30 baht

Khao Soi, a famous street food noodle dish from Luang Prabang, LaosKhao Soi, a famous street food noodle dish from Luang Prabang, Laos

Many people in South East Asia eat around four or five meals a day, little and often is the way rather than breakfast, lunch and a big dinner. Friends and family gather at streetside vendors and it’s very much a social affair. Like ‘pop -up’ restaurants, some can only be found in a particular spot at a certain time of day. Turn up an hour later than usual and you may find your noodle lady is somewhere else. Their temporary nature is one of the reasons why street food is some of the freshest food around!

So if you’re still feeling timid about the cultural phenomena that is South East Asian street food, here are five guidelines to finding something delicious!

1. Follow the crowd

That noodle cart completely surrounded people wobbling on flimsy plastic stools? Yum. That hole in the wall with people pouring out of it? Yum yum. The noisy café hardly any space to sit down, a line out the door, and a symphony of shouted take-out orders? Jackpot.

2. Wander away from the tourist centers

Although it’s a God-send when you’ve been out drinking all night, the best pad thai in the city cannot be found on Khao San Road. Venture down side streets, or soi’s, to find the best local food. Wherever you go in the city, you’ll find small open-air cafés along the soi’s. They all tend to have a slightly grungy feel, a glass box with meat and vegetables near the front, and woks busily crackling on the gas. Don’t let the décor fool you, because here you will find the best food of your trip.

Thailand's most famous dish among foreigners is Pad ThaiThailand’s most famous dish among foreigners is Pad Thai

3. Don’t worry about the menu

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a menu in most of these places, let alone an English menu. Perhaps your Thai language skills aren’t the greatest and you can’t ask what they have? Mai pen rai (no worries), my friend. The easiest way to order here is to check out your neighbor’s food and point to what looks tastiest. If you see a lot of people eating the same thing, there’s probably a reason, so go ahead and order the same thing.

4. Hit the markets

You can find anything under the sun in a Thai market, especially in a big one like Chatuchak, so it’s no surprise that some of the tastiest eats also await you there. Since the majority of the city’s produce comes from these markets, you will certainly find the freshest ingredients and lowest prices in the market. Work up your appetite wandering through the stalls for clothes and souvenirs, and then cruise to the food section to re-fuel for the next adventure.

Cooking meatballs at the night market in Pai, Northern ThailandCooking meatballs at the night market in Pai, Northern Thailand

5. Try everything!

Don’t get stuck in the same fried rice/pad thai routine when there are so many amazing things to try. Keep your eyes out for a table or counter with lots of silver rectangular serving dishes. If you’re on Khao San, venture one block over to Soi Rambuttri, where you can find several such places. There, for about 30-40 baht, you can load up on different dishes over rice with a fried egg on the side. Best wishes and dishes!

The popular meat on a stick in Thailand!Pink, white or orange… The popular meat on a stick in Thailand!

What’s your BEST, simple meal that can be cooked in a hostel?

Although cheap street food makes it possible for backpackers to eat out every night in South East Asia, just wait until you get to Australia or Europe! You’ll get a shock to find you can’t get a plate of noodles for $1 USD here!

Outside of Asia, cooking communally in the hostel is a much better way to save money and get chatting to fellow backpackers at the same time. But what dishes can be conjured that are quick, cheap and nutritious?

Share your best budget recipe and get featured in HostelBookers’ Backpackers Recipe Guide!

The top 10 recipes will be decided by HostelBookers’ 45,000+ facebook fans and then used in the guide with the owner’s name, twitter ID and a link to their website/blog. The Backpackers Recipe Guide will then be sent out to everyone who enters and feature in the kitchens of some of our 20,000 hostels worldwide.

For more details on how to get featured in the ‘Backpacker Recipe Guide’ visit the Hostel Bookers Blog!

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7 Comments For This Post We’d Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Tyler says:

    Hey, Nice article, just finished my Backpacking trip and im missing it already!

    http://www.myalternativelife.net Check out my blog for more tips and guides on

    backpacking in Southeast Asia.

    Thanks

  2. These are excellent tips. I try to just dive in head first all the time.

  3. lhill says:

    Just point or shrug your shoulders and the ladies at the food stands will usually understand you are a lost hungry backpacker and give you a plate of something nice.

  4. Beth says:

    Im going to Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia in a month with a friend and my friend has a severe nut allergy. Any tips on eating in these places with a nut allergy? Thaaanks :-)

    P.s. we’ll be in Chiang Mai for a while so will definitely search out the backpacker office!!

  5. Hi there Beth,

    I actually have a mild nut allergy myself and learnt a few phrases when I first arrived in Thailand.

    ‘Mai Sai Tua’ – means I don’t want nuts.
    ‘Kin Tua Mai Dao’ – means I cannot eat nuts.
    And also ‘Paaer Tua’ – means I am allergic to nuts.
    I usually say them all at the same time while listing the words ‘peanut’ ‘cashew nut’ etc… and people usually understand!

    However, the problem is that in Thailand the word ‘Tua’ is used as a general term for nuts, beans, and bean sprouts – so it can get confusing!

    It can sometimes be difficult with street food in Thailand as the food is cooked in the same pan and not washed between meals, so even if you don’t get nuts in your dish, there may be traces from the previous dish.

    Avoid the dish ‘som tam’ (papaya salad) as this is crushed with peanuts in a ‘pom pok’ bowl – and always tastes nutty to me no matter how many times they wash the bowl!

    If your allergy is serious, be EXTREMELY careful, as nuts are very prevalent in Thai food.
    You could try writing it down in Thai on a piece of card to show people – if you can make a Thai friend who will do that for you when you get here.

    You can also try asking people for advice about your nut allergy on our forum:
    http://forum.southeastasiabackpacker.com/

    Best of luck!

  6. Emilie says:

    I’m so keen to try the street food!
    Doing as much of SEA as I can fit in in 6 months, starting with Thailand.
    BUT, I’m a vegan! Any tips and tricks anyone can offer?

  7. Hi Emille,
    We had an article about traveling in South East Asia as a vegan in our recent issue:
    http://issuu.com/southeastasiabackpacker/docs/s.e.a_backpacker_magazine_issue_21 – See page 62.
    If you can’t read online I can send you the pdf if you email me through the CONTACT US page on this website.
    Best of luck!
    Nikki

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